Race Review: Spain 12th-14th Of May, Round 5

Introduction

This weekend in Barcelona provides a more familiar challenge to the teams with the circuit having been the venue for winter testing; but the cars themselves are slightly less familiar than last time out in Sochi. The Spanish Grand Prix marks the beginning of the so called ‘classic’ season of F1, when the circuits are for the most part situated in the historical heartland of Europe. As such it also marks the weekend in which many teams bring updates and changes to their machines: this year it is no different. All the teams have had one universal change: the forced addition of larger numbers and driver names onto their chassis, which should help to make them easier to identify at the circuit. But in real terms there have been a multitude of upgrades for Red Bull; allegedly bringing their car to the state in which it should have started the season. A whole new slim line nose cone for Mercedes was joined by a couple of tweaks for Ferrari and big changes to the McLaren chassis and bargeboards. Another reason for often wide spread changes at Barcelona is that the track is heavily aerodynamic dependent; often leading to a timing screen that sees the drivers grouped in pairs according to their teams: there is only so much you can extract from the package and these upgrades are trying to push that extraction.

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Race winner: Lewis Hamilton.

Did Red Bull finally join the mix at the top? Was it Mercedes or Ferrari with the upper hand this week? Did McLaren make best use of a less power dependent circuit and leave Alonso with some points before he departs for America? Paddy Lowe of Williams thinks that in the tight midfield battle the abilities of rookies and second drivers in the teams will make all the difference: how did they fair this weekend for their sides? We will explore the answers to those questions and much more below. There is a lot to sift through, so bear with me and my ramblings!

Mercedes (1st & DNF)
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Lewis Hamilton, P1:
Hamilton chalks up his second win of the season, but it was far from easy this time around as he was involved with a battle with Vettel that stretched him to the limits of his on-track ability and also his strategic nous. But triumph he did, as he had in achieving pole on Saturday. Yet often he was quite literally huffing and puffing over the radio: something which in my mind explains how demanding these cars are to drive this season and also the huge challenge that Vettel poses. Hamilton is now also 35 points ahead of his team-mate, so barring a disaster DNF at a future race-weekend he is now going to be firmly favoured by Mercedes over the season as they hunt Vettel down.

Valtteri Bottas, DNF:
A 3rd placed qualifying position on Saturday translated into a very disappointing weekend for Bottas following his victory in Russia. The major headline is of course that he retired from the race on lap 40, which in the long-term doesn’t exactly do wonders to his ability to stake a claim for the favour of his team: as mentioned above he is now 35 points behind Lewis. However, Valtterri was actually vital in the team achieving Lewis’ victory this time out: Mercedes forced Vettel into stopping early by bluffing their radio communication with Hamilton and then used Bottas as a ‘rear gunner’ to back the German into Hamilton. With the margins of this championship already proving to be small, such a contribution will be greatly appreciated by team and team-mate alike. As such, Bottas is still doing what he needs to do in order to have his 1 year contract renewed for next season. Furthermore, there is still plenty of time left this year to show what he can do again, as he did last time out.

Team Summary:
Mercedes have extended their lead to 8 points at the top of the championship; which will be very encouraging. At one point, before Bottas retired that margin could have been much much wider at 26 due to Raikkonen’s woes at turn 1. Therefore in a way, it is to benefit the of the championship that Bottas retired from this race. Mercedes will be aware that Monaco presents a huge opportunity to pull that gap in the constructors and give Hamilton every chance of beating Vettel to the Driver’s Title. They seemed to have the pace over Ferrari this time out, but I think that is more to do with Ferrari’s long stint on a slower tyre than anything else. Neck and neck still at the top.

Ferrari (2nd & DNF)
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Sebastian Vettel, P2:
From 2nd on the grid to 2nd in the race is a betrayal to the eventfulness of Vettel’s afternoon in Barcelona. Sebastian took the lead on the opening lap, but rather became a victim on what I suspect was a dummy strategy from Mercedes in the opening round of pitstops. Having tried to stop an impending Hamilton undercut, Mercedes instead made the Brit go longer than expected. This left Vettel with no other option than to make a 2 stop with a large amount of time spent on the slower Medium tyre. Coupled with being stuck behind Bottas for a couple of laps, this meant Vettel couldn’t fight Hamilton for pace at the end of the race. However, here is an interesting fact: Vettel has won every world championship that he has led at some point in the season. Let’s see if that continues.

Kimi Raikkonen, DNF:
Another disappointing weekend for Raikkonen. A 4th placed qualifying was as good as it got for the Finn, who crashed out with a dramatic steering failure in the first lap when sandwiched between Bottas and Verstappen. However, Raikkonen still provided one of the best stories of the weekend: following his retirement a boy called Thomas was pictured crying in the Sky coverage. Cut to half-way through the race and the young Frenchman was welcomed into the Ferrari garage and hospitality zone with his family to meet his hero, Kimi.

But down in more sporting manners, Kimi now can’t even claim to have half of Vettel’s points: whilst he will have plenty of opportunity to put his cards on the table to retain his contract for 2018, many drivers will make plays for his seat over the season. Furthermore, there is no way that Ferrari will want to direct resources from Sebastian’s campaign now. Kimi is number 2 driver for this season. Even today Vettel had a special steering wheel that improved his start and Kimi did not.

Team Summary:
Ferrari will know that Mercedes’ triumph this weekend is not down to a lack of pace on their part; which will be encouraging: their upgrades have kept them at the very pointy end of the grid. However, there are curious rumours surfacing over Sebastian Vettel signing a pre-contract with Mercedes?! Neither the German nor Niki Lauda, the non-executive manager of Mercedes are denying the rumours. But this kind of dialogue could just be a political tool in the world of Formula 1. Vettel, who is out of contract in 2018, would want to put pressure on the current Mercedes drivers. Lauda wouldn’t quash the rumours to try and make Hamilton and Bottas up their game. This shouldn’t overly worry Ferrari, as they have to keep their eye on the ball this season. Besides, if they deliver Vettel to his 5th world title there is no way he will want to leave; so the game is still in their court.

Red Bull-Renault (3rd & DNF)
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Daniel Riccardo, P3:
Massive turn in fortunes for Danny Ric this time out, following his DNF in Russia. However, he will be aware that his podium was not anything to do with his or his car’s performance and was actually the result of the retirements of Raikkonen and Bottas instead. Furthermore, had his team-mate not retired it is quite possible that Daniel would have finished below him as well: Max was 0.5 seconds quicker in qualifying after all. Such is the state of the Red Bull’s poor pace, Ricciardo was the last un-lapped driver in the race despite being in a lofty 3rd position. He will be grateful for this podium and the low-speed Monaco will provide Daniel another good opportunity at big points. He might be cautiously optimistic of a quicker car at the principality: he was on pole there last year before the huge mistake by his team in the race.

Max Verstappen, DNF:
This time last year, Max Verstappen became the youngest Grand Prix winner in F1 history. But this time, such glories were a distant memory. As in Bahrain, Max’s retirement was not his fault. Whilst some may view that the Dutchman was pushing his luck down into turn one after the start, I rather think that he was the unfortunate victim of Bottas and Raikkonen’s collision: the Ferrari shot across the track and the collision was unavoidable at that point. His steering was broken and that was ‘all she wrote’ for Verstappen this time out. Turning to next weekend, Max has not had a happy relationship with Monaco: crashing out both times he has competed so far. He is obviously incredibly highly rated, but every great driver worth his salt is good at Monaco. Max will want to prove that he is great next time out.

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The collision that took Raikkonen and Verstappen out of the race.

Team Summary:
Daniel Ricciardo was over 30 secs behind the race leaders at around half distance today. At the end of the race, he was about 75 seconds, in fact he was nearly lapped despite being on the podium! This is all anyone needs to know about how badly wrong Red Bull have got these change of regulations. At the beginning of this post I asked the question “Did Red Bull finally join the mix at the top?” and I suppose on the surface they did. But look beyond the results and you will find the truth: they are way, way further behind than ever before this year. Their ‘B-spec’ upgrade has clearly not worked.

Force India-Mercedes (4th & 5th)
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Sergio Perez, P4:
I am soon going to run out of ways to describe Perez’ season, as it is so consistent that all I ever talk about is that consistency and that I believe he should get the Ferrari drive next year if Kimi retires. But what else is there to say when someone is performing so well? Whilst Verstappen and Riccardo have had their ups and downs, Perez is just a damn solid performer. However, it must be said that this is his highest finish of the season, something that was of course aided by the retirements ahead of him as much as his cool head and consistent lap-times. Last year he got a podium in Monaco through his abilities and today’s performance will give him confidence that 3rd could again be possible round the winding streets.

Esteban Ocon, P5:
Again Ocon is another driver who, due to his impressive and consistent performances, cannot draw much comment from me. Last week I said that he “had the consistency of a brick wall” in terms of point scoring ability and this time he has gone further than his P7 in Sochi, to again further my opinion of him: P5 is a massively impressive result for a young man in his first full season. If he continues like this I fully expect him to pick up the “rookie of the year” award at the conclusion of the season.

Team Summary:
Force India are my surprise of the season. As I laid out in my season predictions, I suspected them to do badly from the regulation change compared to last year due to their relatively low budget compared to the teams around them. Speaking of surprises, it is currently being rumoured that former F1 owner Bernie Ecclestone is involved in a bid from a US consortium, fronted by the late Sir Jack Brabham’s son David, who are looking to buy Force India. When asked by Martin Brundle on the grid today Bernie said that he and his team were “giving it a lot of thought” on whether to return the Brabham name to F1 for the first time since 1987.

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The Brabham BT52 for the 1983 season.

But so far this season Force India have gone strength to strength: this weekend is the high point of their expertise so far. A combination of Verstappen’s retirement and the disastrously poor pace of Massa and Stroll mean that the team are now closing in on Red Bull in front of them rather than Williams behind them. They still have a way to go to challenge the RB13, but it is not outside the realms of possibility this season, if their developments are as consistent as their driver pairing.

Toro Rosso-Renault (8th & 9th)
Scuderia_Toro_Rosso_logo.svgCarlos Sainz, P8:
Again, Sainz is another driver who like Perez and Ocon quietly and impressively gets on and does his job incredibly well. He confidently dispatched his team-mate in qualifying on Saturday and his superiority continued during the race as he finished above Kvyat. The only blot on his copy book was when he rashly tried to overtake Magnussen during exiting the pit-lane: pushing himself onto the grass. He is another driver who will be looking at Raikkonen’s position at Ferrari with great interest and would stand a good chance of doing well in the famous red.

Daniil Kvyat, P9:
Last year’s Spanish Grand Prix was Kvyat’s first back in the colours of Toro Rosso following his demotion from Red Bull. That time out he managed to score a singular point in 10th, this time he went one better. However, Daniil will again be disappointed with his performance compared to Sainz this weekend. Most notably he qualified right at the back in P20, a full 1.3 seconds behind his team-mate. Whilst this might at some level be down to problems with his car, not all of that time is down to the machine and the man must step up to finish first in the team: something Kvyat hasn’t achieved this year.

Team Summary:
Toro Rosso have jumped Williams in the midfield this race weekend. They are another team, like Force India, who are learning the importance of quiet consistency at the top of their operating window. Whilst other teams have floundered some weeks and some drivers are letting their teams down, both Kvyat and Sainz are pulling in the points that they need to for their side. Monaco’s ability to level the playing field of pace is another opportunity for them, with a slightly less developed car, to grab as much as possible while they can.

Williams-Mercedes (13th & 16th)
d8QULJvFelipe Massa, P13:

After qualifying in 9th Massa had an eventful race. On the opening lap Massa suffered a puncture at turn 1 which clumsily turned into a run-in with Alonso at turn 2, forcing the Spaniard off the track. As such he made an extra pitstop to everyone else in the race and yet still managed to finish well above his team-mate. On the whole though, Massa dropped the ball this time around despite trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Lance Stroll, P16:
Stroll’s relative upturn in fortunes at Sochi, where he finished 11th, will still be with him; proving that he can perhaps at points have the pace to score points this season. But this weekend was far from that and was in truth pretty embarrassing: his team-mate made a whole extra pitstop and had to spend a whole lap with a puncture, but still beat him by 3 places in the race. This, punctuated with a 19th placed qualifying with a whole second gap to Massa up in 9th, won’t do him any favours in terms of his own or the team’s confidence in his abilities. I don’t want to write him off just yet, but in the past he has only taken part in European Championships and despite winning those this is a big step up for him: perhaps it is a step too steep? This last placed finish here doesn’t do anything to make me doubt that. I will be interested to see how he does in Monaco; often the benchmark for drivers in Formula 1.

Team Summary:
A terrible weekend for Williams culminated in them being jumped by Toro Rosso and also enter the field of vision for the Renault team below them in the table. Whilst Massa did all he could to recover from his early puncture, Lance Stroll just isn’t cutting the mustard at the moment; I think at some point harsh words will have to come from high to the young Canadian. He has shown in previous racing series that he is by no means a bad driver, he is just not delivering at the moment for Williams and that needs to change for them to operate at the highest position available to them.

Renault (6th & 15th)
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Nico Hulkenberg, P6:
From strength to strength from Hulkenberg, who took advantage of the race’s retirements and managed to claw his way from 13th on the grid to a highly useful P6. Weirdly, his lack of pace in qualifying might be explained by Renault’s claims that they were victims of the world wide hacking spree by Ransomware. Make of that what you will, perhaps with a large pinch of salt. Whilst their manufacturing plants were definitely victims of the spree, I am unsure of the interest of F1 to these criminals.

Jolyon Palmer, P15:
Last week I wrote that “I am confused by Jolyon Palmer. Whilst he is clearly still a very good driver of cars, I don’t really know whether or not he deserves to be in F1” and I will rather leave it at that. He has done nothing to change my opinion of him this time out; in fact by finishing a whole second down on Hulkenberg in qualifying and miles behind him in the race, he has only cemented my doubts over him. We will see what is to come, but he needs to collect himself and have a good look at how to improve.

Team Summary:
Once again Hulkenberg is the shining light for Renault in a weekend where Palmer again criminally underperformed. I said in my predictions that Renault could finish 5th in this year’s championship: the only thing holding them back from that is clearly Jolyon. Had he finished anywhere near Nico and so near doubled Renault’s points in these opening races they indeed would be sitting in 5th: above Williams and Toro Rosso. Some stern words need to be had with the Brit. He probably will have some with himself too.

Haas-Ferrari (10th & 14th)
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Romain Grosjean, P10:
An off-colour qualifying from Grosjean was improved upon the following day as he rose from 14th to 10th, successfully batting off an attempted undercut from Alonso in the early part of the race during an intriguing 5 way battle between 7th and 11th. He profited from his team-mates misfortune late in the race, which promoted him into the points. He will be grateful for that and hope he can legitimately do better at Monaco where the car’s deficiencies might be cancelled out. That being said he won’t be looking forward to a circuit where brakes are used extensively; they have been an area of great concern for Grosjean.

Kevin Magnussen, P14:
Magnussen had the inverse performance of his team-mate this weekend. He bettered him in qualifying and ran in the points for the majority of the race. However, a massively unfortunate puncture on the last lap of the race dropped Magnussen from 10th to a lowly 14th; not a very fair reflection on his abilities around Barcelona. He will be hoping that the fates reverse his fortunes next time out, as he deserves to be paid back for the adversity this time out.

Team Summary:
Haas are another team in the midfield who are failing to ensure that they remain consistent. So far they haven’t had a double points scoring finish in the whole year. Even if Magnussen hadn’t got his ill-timed puncture that wouldn’t have happened this time around; as Grosjean would have then been out of the points as well. On the plus side I don’t think there is much danger of them dropping behind either Sauber or McLaren, unless something drastic happens at either of those teams.

Sauber-Ferrari (8th & 11th)
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Pascal Wehrlein, P8:
A superb display from Pascal was only overshadowed by the fact that it could have been even better. During the execution of his excellent one stop strategy, Wehrlein accidentally passed into the pit-lane from the wrong side of the bollard whilst leaving the track. This resulted in a 5 second time penalty that was added to the young German’s time at the end of the race, dropping him from 7th to 8th. However, this is still a hugely impressive points haul and one that is vital for Sauber. Very impressive.

Marcus Ericsson, P11:
Whilst not achieving the heights that his team-mate did, Ericsson also had a good weekend and was close to scoring his first points in around 2 years. That being said his 0.5 second gap to his team-mate in qualifying will be cause for concern. As with the other lowly teams Monaco provides the best opportunity for points scoring, so perhaps Marcus can go one better next time around.

Team Summary:
What Sauber have achieved this weekend is give themselves a huge breathing gap to the crippled McLaren-Honda team. In Pascal Werhlein they have their own version of Fernando Alonso: a driver who can take a bad car well beyond the capabilities that it should be able to achieve in the hands of an ordinary racer. I don’t think this will be the last time that Sauber score points this season: despite their year old Ferrari engine their drivers and engineers are doing well to get as high as they can at each opportunity.

McLaren-Honda (P12 & DNF)
imgres-2Fernando Alonso, P12:
Fernando was an absolute star this weekend: he was certainly by far and away the best driver in Formula 1 this Saturday at any rate. Whilst his team-mate could only muster P19 in qualifying, Fernando hustled to a legitimately Senna-esque P7: taking his underperforming car well beyond what should be possible, in a manner the Brazilian legend himself would have been proud of. It made me genuinely emotional to watch such a heroic performance against all the odds. The race was not quite as successful, as he fell victim to some clumsy driving from old team-mate Felipe Massa on the outside of turn 2 on the first lap. Fernando was hit into the gravel and fell from his lofty 7th to 11th in one moment. From there the McLaren’s lack of race pace saw it fall down to 16th, before Fernando clawed it back to P12 due to retirements and good use of lighter fuel running. At least he finished the race first and foremost, a luxury he has not had so far this season. He seemed buoyed in the post race interview before running off to his private jet, which was waiting to take him to tomorrow’s free-practice for the Indy500 in two weeks time.

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Fernando holds his head up high after his Senna-esque qualifying effort

Stoffel Vandoorne, DNF:
It might be a good time now to review Vandoorne’s season so far in it’s entirety. He is a driver who many expected to be doing well this season, after his impressive point-scoring debut last year in Bahrain when Fernando was injured. However, so far this season he has only showed pretty poor performances. Other, more impressive, rookies such as Ocon have reliable cars to get used to and therefore a lot of running: but Stoffel should be aiming for his team-mate, who is making the absolute best of the car at every opportunity. It is very difficult to tell Vandoorne’s quality next to Fernando, who is simply the best driver on the grid, but overall I had hoped he would do better in comparison. A lowly P19 in qualifying turned into starting at the back due to penalties engine issues. Then a bizarrely clumsy accident with Massa, which simultaneously caused his DNF and also a 3 place grid drop for Monaco, showcased his inexperience and struggle so far. The high point was an overtake on the dimsal Palmer on lap 21.

Team Summary:
The major blow for McLaren is of course Sauber’s points haul in this race. It is in-fact a huge huge problem as this McLaren does not seem to be showing much sign of finishing in the points at any moment this season: now they are playing catch-up to their closest rivals. I currently consider myself a McLaren fan, mainly because of Alonso, so perhaps my bias blinded me earlier in the year when I suggested they wouldn’t finish bottom. I am now reaching the conclusion that McLaren might indeed come last, which simply should not be an option for such an historic team. Should they finish 10th their revenue and sponsorship would go down, heralding an era in which McLaren could not afford to ditch their paying partner Honda and get the engine they need to actually compete. Yet, I suppose if Fernando leaves for better pastures in 2018 they won’t actually have such a huge wage bill (Alonso is allegedly on £25m per year) so could afford to get a mediocre driver and a better engine. On a personal front, when he leaves I will follow Fernando wherever he goes anyway: despite being a fan, McLaren aren’t my only focus in motorsport. So should they still be uncompetitive, it won’t be such a big issue for me as hopefully Alonso will be doing well in whatever car or racing series he is in.

Race Review & Analysis

Unlike the race in Sochi there was plenty of action to see on the track in Barcelona, as well as the usual intrigue surrounding the strategies that the teams implement during the allocated laps. We saw an almost race long battle between the two Toro Rosso’s and the Haas cars, at one point also featuring Alonso. More significantly there were 2 changes of the lead between Mercedes and Ferrari. Firstly on lap 24 when Vettel, having been held up by Bottas, made a big dive into turn one and overtook the Finn by making use of the full width of the track and even some of the grass; kicking up plumes of dust and dirt. Secondly the intriguing games of strategy between Ferrari and Mercedes finally came to a fore on lap 44, when driver 44 Lewis Hamilton used his much newer soft tyres to breeze past Vettel into the lead having been on his tail and denied the over-take a couple of times by the German.

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Hamilton & Vettel too close for comfort

It seems apparent that this season the strategies that teams are using to get one up on their rivals is also taking an escalation as much as the development of their cars. For the first time in a while the closeness of the cars are giving rise to what can simply be called ‘mind-games’ between the leaders. Often they take the simple form of trying to stay out as long as possible on their tyres, forcing the other team to lose the grip or attempt to undercut them. However, today we saw the first instance of fake radio messages between teams and drivers to try and fool the opposition into believing false pit strategies and masked tyre degradation. Vettel’s first pit-stop came incredibly early on lap 15 or so, as Ferrari had believed that Hamilton was trying to undercut them himself. All of this fighting is in the interest of trying to get ‘clean air’ at the front, in which drivers can fully stretch their legs and gain a pace advantage on their rivals. As a spectator it is fascinating to think how far these mind games will go, especially in a race like Monaco, where track position means absolutely everything as it is so hard to overtake.

Constructor & Driver Tables (BBC infographics)
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Next Time Out: Monaco Grand Prix

In a fortnight’s time we head to a place which needs no introduction, the real jewel in the crown of the Formula 1 calendar: the tight and winding streets of Monaco. As we have discussed above, we are seeing a lot of the importance in strategy this season. With the principality being such a difficult place to overtake, we can be sure that tactics will be incredibly important yet again. Every driver wants to win at Monaco but as the championship rumbles on and as Vettel lost ground this weekend, this win will be more important than ever for the guys at the top of the tables.  Next time we also welcome back Jenson Button; so it will be very nice to write unexpectedly on him this season, as he is another favourite of mine. We will of course be without Fernando next week, so I also am aiming to watch him in the Indy500 if I have the time. I may even write on his race over in the USA as well: so will be very busy with Monaco, Indy and other commitments. Nevertheless, I hope to see you again then.

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